Structural Biology: a beginner’s guide?

I got impatient waiting for my latest review article to come out, so here it is. The scheduled publication date has slipped twice now without the publisher getting in touch to explain why. The latest I’ve heard, after querying the editor who commissioned the piece, is that it will be out by the end of the month. But I’ve paid my £500 fee to make the work open access and don’t see any good reason to delay further.

My review, titled ‘Structural Biology: a century-long journey into an unseen world’, is a contribution to an upcoming issue of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews that will commemorate the centenary of the 1915 Nobel prize in physics awarded to William and Lawrence Bragg, the father and son team that first used X-rays to ‘see’ the atomic structure of matter. It traces the developments in structural biology that over the past 100 years – with and beyond X-rays – have revealed to us the fascinating molecular world that lies beneath our senses.

As befits an interdisciplinary journal, I tried to write my review for a general readership, which I hope to broaden further by making it available here. I doubt I have freed myself from all the bonds of the scholarly habit of writing but I hope the article might appeal to the interested amateur. As a taster, here are the opening paragraphs:

When Orville Wright took off in the Flyer on a grey morning in December 1903 and flew for all of 12 seconds across the sands near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, little could he have suspected that by 1969 powered flight would land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Humankind’s first foray onto another world remains for many people one of the greatest technological achievements of the 20th Century. But within the 66 years it took to get from Kitty Hawk to Tranquillity Base another equally remarkable technological – and scientific – journey took place, one that has brought us to a very different destination.

In 1912, in experiments initiated by Max von Laue in Germany and successfully analysed by William and Lawrence Bragg in England, X-rays were first used to peer into the atomic structure of crystalline matter. By the end of the 1950s X-ray crystallography had leapt from physics to chemistry to biology and the atomic architecture of DNA and several proteins had been revealed, giving us the first glimpses of a molecular landscape that was no less surprising and no less strange than the surface of the Moon. It had taken just five decades for structural biology to emerge as a fledgling discipline. In the five that have since elapsed the field has grown vigorously, thanks not only to developments in X ray crystallography but also to the emergence of complementary techniques that have used other physical phenomena to lift the veil on an unseen world – the atomic and molecular matrix of life.

If you want to know more, you can download the PDF (8.6 MB).

Update (11 Dec, 15:46): This article was finally published by Interdisciplinary Science Reviews at the end of November. It’s open access so you can now download the journal-fomatted version for free.


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5 Responses to Structural Biology: a beginner’s guide?

  1. Nikolaus Kriegeskorte says:

    posting as you did here is how scientific publishing should work. it’s how it will work — followed by postpublication open evaluation ( every young person in science seems to understand this.

    i’m still puzzled therefore about the choice of title of today’s debate in cambridge: “can society afford open access?” as theo bloom noted: can society afford not to require open access?
    i would add: can society afford to fund science and humanities, fund the editorial boards and reviewers, and then transfer copyright for free to private companies and buy back the results at exorbitant prices? they do add value by administering peer review, copyediting, producing the layout, and archiving — and there are alternative licences and OA options. however, these services are not worth the price asked given modern technology). more importantly, the current system slows down science and keeps it stuck in a secretive and counterproductive culture of anonymous peer review.

    we need a publicly funded system for scientific publications to compete with elsevier et al. the editorial boards of the journals we love (as Daniel Allington noted) could then move to such a system if the for-profit alternative is not cost effectively performing its function. every academic should have the *right* to publish freely at no cost (to address Peter Mandler’s important concern from the perspective of the humanities).

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment Nikolaus. There are many problems with the current system and the transition to OA (as discussed in the debate on Friday). I’m not sure that “every young person in science” is a devotee of post-publication peer review. I can see some benefits but I think it will take a long time to convince young and old scientists that this is the right path. Open peer review (publication of reviews) is a solid step in the right direction, as are preprints. But I think authors want the ‘closure’ that comes from pre-publication review. Definitely an area worth exploring.

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  3. Is there any details about this subject in other languages?